Advice for New Mayors: Watch Your Mouth

It's tempting to plunge in and try to fix everything right away. But in trying to do too much too soon, it's easy to say something dumb and get into trouble.
by | January 27, 2014

Nine new big-city mayors took office this month -- full of hope, brimming with confidence and eager to bring change to their cities. A recent Governing.com post noted "a strong progressive streak" in the inaugural speeches of the mayors of Boston, New York, Pittsburgh and Seattle, and the video clips of the speeches left me rooting for these mayors.

But the speeches also left me with something else. I wanted to urge these new mayors to ease up, go slow and get the feel of things before trying to do too much too soon. I should know why this is good advice: During my time as mayor of Kansas City, nearly every stupid statement that I later came to regret was uttered in my first couple of months on the job.

Here's one example: Kansas City had relied almost exclusively on tax increment financing (TIF) to do economic development, but while the city's East Side, which is heavily African-American, has by far the greatest need for economic development, virtually all of the city's TIF projects had gone to the whiter, wealthier parts of the city. My predecessor as mayor, with the strong backing of the business elite, had focused almost exclusively on investing in downtown while ignoring most of the city's neighborhoods.

So in my inaugural address I declared, "We must reach out to those areas where our residents could use a boost from City Hall to help them help themselves. … With that in mind, the first tax increment financing proposal that reaches my desk had darn well better be on the East Side."

Well, that was dumb. First, TIF projects take many months, if not years, to move through the pipeline from conception to a vote by the council and the signature of the mayor. Second, the projects are driven by developers seeking profit; it was extremely unlikely that a developer would even propose a project on the East Side. But I was flush with victory and the righteous zeal to right wrongs, and so I made a foolish declaration, demanding something that wasn't going to happen, and it would be used against me repeatedly.

We call the mayor's office the bully pulpit, but it is better thought of as a megaphone that will amplify everything the mayor says, both the profound and the inane. And, of course, the inane will get far more attention. Mastering the bully pulpit is like learning to use a high-powered tool. It takes time and effort to gain skill; mistakes will be made and you have to manage the damage.

This all reminds me of when my son Andrew first started driving a car. He had some significant accidents in the first couple of months, but now he's 24 and hasn't had an accident since. He thought he knew how to drive when he got his license, but he was overconfident and inexperienced -- just like I was when I won the election and got my "license" to be the mayor. I'd worked directly with elected officials almost my entire career, including for the three Kansas City mayors who preceded me. I was supremely confident. But nothing a person has ever done has adequately prepared them to be the mayor of a major American city. It is a job like no other.

In his inaugural speech, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio gave voice to a sense of urgency that is probably felt by every member of this crop of new mayors. "We won't wait!" de Blasio thundered repeatedly. "We'll do it now!" But I would tell de Blasio and all of the other new mayors that the office they hold is a complex machine. Take some time to really figure out how this machine works before you tackle the truly big stuff. Over the long run, you'll be on the defensive less and you'll accomplish a lot more.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com  | 

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Urban